It’s not a secret that I love studying history; I believe it is a vital discipline for understanding and transforming the world. And as shocking and terrifying as human cruelty has been throughout recorded history, it’s also heartening to observe, time and time again, the movements opposing oppression that have always existed. This is also important to remember if you are tempted to excuse the complicity of people in the past by insisting that they were just products of their time. By studying history, we also become more aware of our own responsibilities and possibilities in the present.
A Legacy of Failure, Cruelty, and War
One of these important historical moments in US history, when there were multiple and large movements to either oppose or work for social justice, followed the American Civil War.
Optimism that Reconstruction would bring about true and lasting healing and change in a nation ravaged and traumatized by the horrors of slavery and war, were combined with optimism that there could be a change in the government’s policies regarding Native peoples.
President Ulysses S. Grant and the events that took place in his administration are a good example of these trends. The Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, for example, were aimed at providing federal support to protect the rights of Black Americans and oppose the Ku Klux Klan. Under the direction of Attorney General Amos Ackerman, hundreds of Klansmen were tried, often by Black juries, and imprisoned. Thousands more received fines or warnings, or even fled to escape prosecution. As a result, the KKK as a formal organization was in wreckage by 1872.
Optimism that Reconstruction would bring about healing were combined with optimism that there could be a change in the government’s policies regarding Native peoples.
At the same time, Grant wanted to find a different approach to US relations with Native peoples. He worked closely with his longtime friend and colleague, Ely S. Parker, and made Parker his Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker, whose Native name was Donehogawa, was a member of the Seneca nation and the first Indigenous person to hold the post of Commissioner. Together, they developed policies that included providing federal troops to protect reservation borders from settlers and that ultimately would have provided a pathway to citizenship for Indigenous people.
These plans were vehemently opposed and undermined, and opponents eventually falsely accused Parker of embezzling money. He was exonerated, but Congress stripped power from the office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Parker resigned in 1871.
Plans and relationships fell apart, and Grant ended up waging war against the very people he had thought he would protect, including “the Modoc War in 1873, the Red River War in 1874, and the Great Sioux War in 1876.”
By 1885, the year Grant died, Donehogawa, once Grant’s enthusiastic colleague, described the fate of Indigenous peoples in North America. Resisting the racist idea that blamed Indigenous people for their troubles, he wrote:
“The disabilities, disadvantages and wrongs do not result, however, either primarily, consequently or ultimately from their tribal condition and native inheritances, but solely, wholly and absolutely from the unchristian treatment they have always received from Christian white people … . The tenacity with which the remnants of this people have adhered to their tribal organizations and religious traditions is all that has saved them thus far from inevitable extinguishment.”
Grant’s campaign slogan had been “Let us have peace,” and he seemed sincere in his vision to reform federal Indian policies. So how did it happen that, as Alysa Landry pointed out, “some of the worst massacres and grossest injustices in history [occurred] while Ulysses S. Grant was in office”? This is an important question to ask, if we want to avoid the kind of pitfalls that kept others’ from true healing and change.
In Grant’s case, central to his failures was “the development of millions of acres of federal public lands” and “the private acquisition of land by pioneers, spectators and railroad and mining companies,” made possible by Grant’s approval of the Timber Culture, General Mining, and Desert Lands Acts, which all expanded the land available to homesteaders and settlers – at the expense of Native peoples. In the end, Grant’s hopeful slogan, “Let us have peace,” was no match for the reality of expansionism. In Landry’s words,
“Grant realized that his expansionist goals required the removal of Indians from desirable land. His Indian Peace Policy, designed to reform the Indian Bureau and remove corrupt agents, also called for rigorous agricultural training on reservations and established schools and churches that would transform Indians into Christian citizens.”
Cultural Genocide by Another Name
This tension is the US setting for residential schools. Even though some people, like Grant and Donehogawa, wanted to promote and protect the rights of the Original Nations, that hope was always in second place to the relentless westward push of land-grabbing and violent displacement.
A cluster of ideas have especially supported and justified this kind of colonization. First, the dominating power believes in its own superiority. Members of this society, then, are entitled to rule and profit from that superiority, even if it comes at the expense of others.
This is especially the case when the people harmed are categorized as inferior. Moreover, because the dominating power believes in its superiority, it can reframe the harm it causes to others as ultimately in their best interest.
Those that survive will reap the benefits of being assimilated into the superior culture. It’s a tidy system that excused hundreds of years of oppression and continues to do so today.
The residential school emphasis on agricultural training, education, and conversion fits this pattern. But forced assimilation could only be viewed as moral and good from the vantage point of superiority.
Unfortunately, the settlers of North America never lacked that character trait. Captain Richard H. Pratt, who was a founder and superintendent of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, gave a speech in 1892 that showed how a person could justify even the most cruel actions under the guise of racist and paternalistic generosity and care. He began by stating that:
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Amazingly and horrifyingly, Pratt would then use the enslavement of Africans as a positive example of how assimilation could work. Rather than recognize the courage, persistence, creativity, and love that marked Black resistance to slavery and its descendants, such as Jim Crow and mass incarceration, Pratt gave all the credit to the White people who enslaved them. In Pratt’s view, “the care and authority of individuals of the higher race” was a blessing in disguise.
“Horrible as were the experiences … of slavery itself, there was concealed in them the greatest blessing that ever came to the Negro race—seven millions of blacks from cannibalism in darkest Africa to citizenship in free and enlightened America … .” (ibid)
In contrast, Pratt saw the wars fought against Native peoples and concluded that forced assimilation was more effective. “We have never made any attempt to civilize them with the idea of taking them into the nation,” Pratt wrote, “and all of our policies have been against citizenizing and absorbing them.” Boarding schools were Pratt’s answer:
“It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage. He is born a blank, like all the rest of us. … Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.” (ibid)
This is what White supremacy looks like, dressed up in schoolmaster’s robes. The unmistakable goal was to eliminate Indigenous nations, communities, customs, languages, and life.
The Civilization Fund Act
The official roots of the residential schools in the US go back to 1819, when Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act. It’s stated goal was stopping the “decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes” by “introducing among them the habits and arts of civilization.”
The name of the act already demonstrated their commitment to forced assimilation, with the settlers’ ways assumed to be civilized and superior to any others. However, those early schools were mainly operated within Native communities, and some communities believed, or hoped, they could take advantage of the schools to slow colonization or mute its brutality. Instead, the powers that be just became frustrated that forced assimilation wasn’t progressing as quickly as they had planned.
The demand for removing children increased, and Grant’s 1869 Peace Policy was part of the growing shift toward residential or boarding schools. A parallel movement was happening in Canada. The emphasis on saving Native peoples by converting them is clearly seen in both nations, as is the elevation of the missionary as a heroic figure, the embodiment of the White Savior. This shift is demonstrated in no less than Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, who said:
“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. … Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
Assimilation required, then, the removal of the children’s cultural identities, such as forcing them to wear uniforms, forbidding native languages, and cutting braids. And to be effective, the schools tried to traumatize as many children as possible, so that cultural transmission would be broken generationally. Hundreds of thousands of children were forced to attend schools in the USA, rising to over 80% of Native children by 1926. In Canada, more than 150,000 children were “required to attend state-funded Christian schools”.
New Tactics, Similar Results
These schools are a powerful and tragic reminder of how oppression often comes in layers. The schools themselves constituted violence, a direct and intentional attack on Native peoples and cultures. They should have never existed. Once there, children were regularly exposed to physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, as well as structural violence (such as malnutrition and lack of health care) and cultural violence (such as cutting their braids and forbidding them from speaking their native languages). All the while, these children mattered so little to the authorities that proper records were often not kept.
In Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent almost eight years, from 2008 to 2015, investigating their residential schools. Their findings offer insight into the schools, including how so many children died. Leslie Young of Global News, summarized the findings. First, the number of deaths were likely much higher; for example, students who became sick and were sent home to die were not included. Of the 3,200 deaths they investigated, the commission reported that officials did not even record a name for 1/3 of the deaths, or a cause of death for ½ of those who passed away. Even so, Young reported that:
“Indigenous children in residential schools died at far higher rates than other Canadian children, even for the time, … . / According to the report, many children died from infectious diseases – in particular tuberculosis – fires in school buildings, suicide, drowning, and other accidental causes.”
Additionally, we know that nutritional experiments, in which Native children were purposely malnourished and, in some cases, fed an "experimental flour mixture that was illegal in the rest of Canada,” were performed in Canadian residential schools in the 1940s. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/residential-school-nutrition-experiments-explained-to-kenora-survivors-1.3171557 )
We also know that at least one doctor, assisted by a nurse, performed medical experiments on Native children in the 1950s. The experiments resulted in deafness and left the victims and their families with terror they still remember to this day.
Moreover, compulsory attendance at boarding schools did not end in the US until 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, or in Canada until 1996 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/30/the-guardian-view-on-canadas-residential-schools-an-atrocity-still-felt-today ). Even then, the system shifted to other ways of forced assimilation, especially placing Native children into foster and adoptive care in non-Native households. David Simmons of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, described the process:
"There was very little work done … to help the families rehabilitate, very little work done to really understand if there were any other family members who might be able to step in, … . / And usually the reasons that were given for removing children were pretty flimsy, compared to what we normally consider good practice in child safety."
Shifting Cultures and Consciousness
All of this connects to the urgent needs of the present. There is a temptation to view the problems associated with forced assimilation and residential schools as in the past. But that is a lie, convenient for those in power, harmful to everyone, and animated by “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” .
Alongside changing systems and structures, a cultural shift is needed to move away from those attitudes and ideas that have fueled colonization, led to the practices of forced assimilation, and continue to be embedded in our collective consciousness.
When you listen to the news, for instance, listen through the lens of this history.
When you hear about the ongoing resistance to pipelines through Indigenous lands, don’t separate it from the history of state-sponsored violence against Native peoples. When you hear a story about how a Native American student is treated for wearing braids, remember the history of cultural genocide. When you learn that “In South Dakota, a Native child is 11 times more likely to be placed in foster care than a white child” (https://www.teenvogue.com/story/foster-care-has-failed-native-american-youth ), remember the ongoing legacy of forced removal and residential schools. And when you grieve the children still living in concentration camps on the US’ southern border, don’t forget that this represents another instance of forcibly separating Native children from their families, and that, according to lawyers, “the process is even more complicated for those who only fluently speak any one of more than 100 indigenous languages spoken by millions of people from Mexico to Honduras.”
Colonization, White supremacy, and other forms of domination rely on the exploitation of human beings and the earth itself in order to accumulate power and wealth in the hands of the few. These interlocking systems were never wise, compassionate, moral, or sustainable, and they now drive us to the edge of extinction. Gratefully, these oppressive systems are not the only traditions, even in the West, and Indigenous peoples especially have courageously preserved and developed many other cultures that do not rely on domination. Especially for White folx, our work of the present moment is to heal and transform our collective consciousness, honoring the great web of life and finding our place within it.
And to do that, we must part ways with the sins of superiority, forced assimilation, and greed, learning that our own well-being cannot be separated from the well-being of the diversity of humans and human cultures, or from the earth itself. May it be so.
david "Katya" ketchum